Sunday, November 19, 2006

"Don't Ask Shit Questions": To FIFE or not to FIFE

Another med school first.

I'm about to tell you about the first time that I was sworn at by a patient.

I've heard patients swearing at doctors before, but never at me. This was a wholly new and wonderful experience and I am taking it as though I have reached new depth in my irreversible spiral of being sucked into the health care profession, complete with its highs and lows, the latter of which can include being sworn at, among other things.

I'm happy to recount this saga. Unfortunately, it does not come without a lengthy, but hopefully entertaining, prologue.


In our medical school we're taking a course on how to interview patients. Sure, most of it is common sense, but in the day and age where doctors are taking hits on having poor bedside manner, the logic behind this can be understood. I have seen, and have heard first-hand accounts, of physicians such as a surgeon who would enter a patient's room, remove the surgery bandage, look at the wound, write in the chart, and leave, without so much as a word to the patient. Yeah, these cases are in the minority, but there are enough of them for the medical schools to start teaching doctors how to be compassionate and how to talk to patients and show empathy and feeling.

So, someone somewhere in medical school curriculum development land decided that there were not enough acronyms for med students to remember and separate them from the general public untrained in medical expertise other than through what they see in ER and Grey's Anatomy, and thus invented "FIFE."

The students in my class have taken very dearly to this acronym, and instead of talking about "asking a patient the FIFE questions" or "using FIFE," my classmates have taken towards stating it in terms of "FIFEing the patient." "In this interview I'll be sure to FIFE my patient," I have heard often, or in further abuses of the loose resemblance of the term another word in the English language, some students will say "FIFE your patient! FIFE them until you can't FIFE any more," or "I definitely FIFEd the _ out of my volunteer patient." No disrespect is meant to the patients, just to the dude who thought that "FIFE" would be a safe word to give to young men and women early in their medical training.

Even our faculty tutors sometimes use this term in a way that could possibly be phrased more gently. A medical student at my school was practicing interviewing a volunteer patient in our communication skills class, and called a "time out" because she didn't know what to ask. "Did you FIFE your patient?" the tutor asked. The patient, with a look of surprise and horror on his face, exclaimed, "'FIFE?!' You're going to FIFE me? What do you mean FIFE?!!"

If you don't know what this means, you're probably wondering by now what the heck I'm talking about. You are not alone, and I have chosen to enlighten you. FIFE stands for Feelings & Fears / Ideas & Impressions / Function / Expectations, and are headings for a number of questions that doctors can ask patients about their illness to determine where the patient is coming from.

For example:
F: "Do you have any specific fears or concerns?"
I: "What do you think might be causing this illness?"
F: "How is this illness affecting your daily functioning?"
E: "What are you expecting from this visit to the doctor?"

You get the idea.

Some doctors don't use these guidelines, some doctors do. Some avoid even the idea of it. A girl in my class told me that her clinic preceptor pretty much used "the anti-FIFE" - don't ask any questions about their feelings because there just isn't enough time if we're going to fit in 6 patients per hour.

In some cases, though, the FIFE questions can be very helpful. To demonstrate this, the course directors brought a standardized patient (an actor portraying a patient with an illness) who complained of wheezing and chest tightness. Questioning the class made it clear that we were all ready to assume that proper treatment would be along the lines of doing a lung test and prescribing asthma puffers; however, FIFE produced valuable additional information that would not have been discovered otherwise. The best example came upon asking the E portion of FIFE ("What are you expecting from this visit to the doctor?"). The patient revealed that she knew of friends and family that had suffered from heart conditions, and she wanted a heart test to rule out this possibility. Us budding physicians hadn't considered that the patient might have been hoping for this, so FIFE prevailed and we were all immediately and wholly convinced as to its efficacy and even stopped making fun of it just a little bit.


With that introduction I can now move in to the saga of my being sworn at.

I was in my third week of Family Practice clinic and was sent to a room to interview a patient. I walked into the room to see a gentleman in his late thirties peering out the window through the blinds. I wasn't sure how to approach this odd situation, so after composing myself I asked, "What are you looking at?"

"My car. I don't want my car to get towed," he said hurriedly.

He turned around to reveal a gentleman in his late thirties, I'm guessing blue collar, with blond spiked hair, an earring, and a large tattoo on his back and neck. He was the type of guy you might see get out of a beat-up pick up truck at a bar to have a few beers, watch a hockey game, and yell at the TV with his buddies.

I respected his implication that time was of the essence so I decided to proceed a bit more quickly, without asking about his family and hobbies and the like. I introduced myself as a medical student and asked if it was okay for me to interview him; he almost cut me off: "Yeah, yeah, do whatever you need to do, that's fine with me."

I proceeded ask him about the chest pain that had brought him in, and the typical questions about how long, how painful, and the like. "It hurts like hell," he said. I asked, "On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the worst pain you ever experienced, how bad is it?" He replied, "Well, I have gout, and that is horrible pain. Compared to that, this would be like a 1. But this hurts like hell." I tried to figure out what that meant while I scribbled notes on my clipboard.

Once I had gotten a good idea of his pain, admittedly a bit flustered that I was thrown off my normal questioning routine by trying to rush the interview, I realized that I was running out of questions.

Without skipping a beat or showing any signs of distress, I immediately resorted to FIFE. I had the good sense to not ask this man about his feelings, and instead asked what he thought was causing the pain.

"My smoking, for sure."

Score one for FIFE.

I reached into my trusty FIFE question kit and carefully selected another question to present to him.

"What do you hope to achieve by coming in today?" I asked.

He stared at me.

"Um," I rephrased, "what are your expectations for this visit to the doctor?"

He looked at me as if I had just grown a third ear.

"I want to know what it is. I want to know what the fuck it is. Make the fucking pain go away."

And then the fateful blow:

"I just want to know what the pain is. Don't ask me any of your shit questions."

"Shit" questions?! I was devastated. I thought I had been armed with the tools of interviewing by my infallible supervisors, and yet here I had gone and agitated a patient to the point of cussing. How dare he call FIFE "shit questions"!!! FIFE had failed me. And it only went downhill from there.

I tried not to look too flustered and tried to wrap up as fast as I could. I asked if he wanted a flu shot, then I asked if he was taking any medications. He mentioned a drug for his gout, then looked at me and said,

"Dr. Milton knows about all my conditions. I've talked with him about all that already. My history is not your fucking business. Do what you need to do with this, and ask me nothing else."

Again trying not to act too flustered, and sensing something less than appreciation for my efforts, I ended the interview, and told him, "You know, I usually come back in with Dr. Milton, but if you prefer the doctor can just see you on his own."

His response was not what I expected.

"Oh, no, no, that's fine, I don't care if you're here."

A bit confused, and a lot flustered, I left and presented the case to the physician quickly, and hoped that this paradoxical patient would stop trying to test my limits. The doctor came in, diagnosed the illness, and wrote down a prescription. As the doctor was finishing up, he told me to take the patient's blood pressure.

I realized I had subconsciously edged my way as far as possible away from this patient and had my back against the wall, and so upon being asked to take his blood pressure I slowly made my way towards this man that I realized I had been distancing myself from.

He didn't make it easy for me, either. As soon as I put the blood pressure cuff on his arm and had inflated it with a single pump...he freaked out. He jumped and pulled his arm away.

"What the hell!?" he shouted.

I was pretty much at my wit's end, and shocked and confused as to why this guy was reacting this way to the very minor pressure that a blood pressure cuff exerts after only one squeeze of the bulb. I looked up at him in surprise.

"Just kidding," he said.

What the heck!? I'm not sure if there was something not right in this patient's head. My classmate suggested he might be bipolar. Either way, he was enough to make me seriously wonder about his sanity.


(Any story with a prologue must have a postlude. It's just good Englishing, and I am a huge proponent of doing grammar correct.)

So that was my first experience being sworn at by a patient, and I can probably expect it to happen again. Fortunately, in the grand scheme of cusses that patients can direct towards their health care providers, this was very mild. At least he didn't start swinging at me or anything; heck, he didn't really even swear at me, just around me. And I couldn't wait to tell my interviewing class small-group tutor what the patient had said about FIFE.

I'll definitely be more selective about when I choose to pull out the "shit questions."


Anonymous said...

i think you might be a little too sensitive. Not that he was a nice guy or anything, but maybe swearing is your button, and you might need to try to desensitize yourself.

Anonymous said...

Ever think the guy just wanted to have a good time? Med students are the new kids on the block, and I can't say that I, as a patient, haven't liked to screw with them every once in awhile...
Love the blog though! Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Thats hilarious!! LMAO!! I happen to think FIFE sucks at the best of times. I especially love it when you ask about their ideas and expectations.....They look at you like Dah!!! If I knew what it was I wouldn't be here, and my expectation is that you tell me what the f#@% it is!!

Anonymous said...

Haha, I've had patients look at me funny when I ask them what are their expectations, or their ideas regarding the illness. usually the reply is " you are the doctor, you should know." lol
Keep up the good work. I'm just not as dedicated to blogging my experience, but it's great to read other medical people's.